Kids transported to Ellis Island
Greeley School fourth graders Sarah Baillos (from left), Charlie Acri and Jack Soehn check in with Jean Conway, a special education teacher, during an Ellis Island immigration simulation and family history unit at the school in Winnetka on Friday, Dec. 14
Updated: February 4, 2013 6:04AM
WINNETKA — Shortly before winter break, the students at Greeley Elementary School took a trip through time, across the Atlantic Ocean to Ellis Island.
Portraying the historic island was the dim and dusty gym stage. The activity was the culmination of a two-month study of the fourth grade’s immigration unit.
Each student had been given a name and country of origin before they began the activity, which took them through citizenship tests, document inspections, IQ tests, medical inspections, general inspections and being marked with chalk by island staff members.
Students were divided up into families and spent weeks researching their family history and heritage prior to boarding their ship to America.
“They have to be aware of wars, famine or other reasons why they left their home country,” said fourth-grade teacher Drew Peterson. “Each family member must help each other. History is so hard for kids at this age to grasp, especially to understand what 100 years ago was like.”
The teachers make a point of having the kids wait once they reach the island. Students can take up to 90 minutes to fully complete the process, all while listening in on their peers who are already moving through the stations.
“The nervousness starts to build (during the wait),” Peterson said. “It’s really a powerful thing for them to step up to the plate and answer these questions. You see in their eyes they want to answer correctly with the hope of entering America.”
Students are questioned up to eight or nine times when presenting their boarding passes and, upon reaching the island, are asked if they have jobs lined up already and if they have people living in America waiting for them.
“I went to Ellis Island in August and toured the place and wanted to make sure (our demonstration) was very accurate,” said Peterson, who started the activity at Greeley School six years ago. “Some of the kids actually tear up during it. That speaks to the depth of these students and how seriously they’re taking this. It’s quite amazing.”
Throughout the process students keep a diary of the events leading up to, during and after the Ellis Island immigration process.
“Some of the entries are incredible,” Peterson said. “It’s some of the most powerful writing you’ll read. It might be one of their strongest memories of Greeley before they leave.”
After completing the process and being granted entry to America the students stand on stage and recite an oath. The kids then spend their final 30 minutes in the gym discussing their experience with their teachers and author their final journal entry.